Q&A with Contentful’s Research Manager, Daniel Strazzulla: Content as a Service

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By Thijs Krooswijk and Jacco Meijer

Content is everywhere. There’s so much of it that building and designing a story with understandable, engaging, well-structured, and nicely displayed content that will reach the right people at exactly the right place and time has become an elusive science. Brands and businesses rightly often find this overwhelming, especially with so many existing channels (and who knows how many more are yet to come?)

At Edenspiekermann, we know that both your business and content must be prepared for whatever challenges tomorrow’s channels throw at you (because while customers don’t care about your channels, the challenges will still come). With our partner Contentful, you can quickly get started in multiple ways: from hosting a specific part of your website, to building a microsite, to powering your blog. To help you navigate the biggest hurdles and become more familiar with headless CMSs, we sat down with Daniel Strazzulla, Research Manager at Contentful, to chat about the main challenges your brand or business faces.

Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us today. To start things off, what are the main challenges content-driven brands face today?

Definitely digital transformation, where brands have to spin up digital products faster. This necessitates speeding up time-to-market, minimizing of headaches managing servers, and juggling multiple content publishing platforms. However, to get this done, teams have to become more efficient with time and resources by eliminating redundant, antiquated processes (such as publishing the same content multiple times on different platforms, or struggling with optimizing the way content looks on various devices).

Currently, many organizations rely on multiple different systems to manage their content, which results in additional financial and time costs, the need for extensive training, information silos, and technical dependencies that can quickly bottleneck and block deliveries. This multi-channel fragmentation is due to traditional CMSs having legacy implementations from the early web/print era — obviously, they were not designed from the ground up with modern needs and devices in mind.

This fragmentation issue can be solved by introducing a unified content strategy, where organizations publish once and push content everywhere, saving time and effort dealing with legacy CMSs and associated repetitive work.

Some large multinational corporations we spoke with have been facing problems with a turnover of development staff due to increased frustration and pain working with legacy systems. They not only have outdated features but also security- and functionality-related bugs due to infrequent maintenance. As a result, developers and users of such systems have to come up with hacked/duct-tape solutions which are poorly optimized or may not work exactly as intended.

The solution is not to try to backfill teams to work with legacy CMSs, but to instead look at getting these younger parts of the workforce on board with modern-era ways of working with content. This also has the possibility of increasing employee satisfaction via increased productivity and decreased frustration.

So the alternative to legacy CMSs is then a headless CMS. However, many of our readers may not be familiar with what precisely a headless CMS is. Can you explain, in non-technical language, what it is?

Of course! Unlike an existing CMS that couple storing content based on how it looks on a website, headless CMSs allow you to structure content independently from its final look, so you can reuse it on many channels. Headless CMSs are developer friendly and enable digitals team to ship products more quickly — they remove the front-end layer of your content database, allowing you to control how you display that content. For example, with Contentful’s API-first solution decouples the content from its presentation and provides an array of features to power your content infrastructure through SDKs and developer tools, along with customizations such as UI extensions and space environments.

Now that we better understand headless CMSs, how do they contribute to brands’ and business’ success, specifically in e-commerce?

The headless CMS contributes to success primarily via time-to-market by allowing the efficiency and flexibility for an organization to be and react first, with optimized processes and modern ways of working. Having content that’s always online and always available across all devices, delivered consistently, is an aspect headless CMSs excel at. Teams can write and publish just once, then allow access to content on all devices (not just desktop and mobile, but also digital signage, billboards, etc.).

From e-commerce to content commerce, it’s important to create a story for each product you’re trying to sell by putting the right content in the right place, fast. We joke that in e-commerce projects, 40% of the project resources go to ripping the old front end out and the remaining 60% goes to putting the new front end in. With headless CMSs, you can immediately move to building your front-end layer, which yields immediate cost savings.

Headless CMSs also allow teams to focus on delivering while staying on top of the latest technologies by always being up-to-date with content infrastructure — there’s no need for maintaining servers and hosting. With that comes support for the trendiest programming languages and ability to work with powerful APIs, all without having to delve into the nitty-gritty, difficult parts of setting up a system from scratch or heavily modifying an existing CMS.

We’ve looked at the benefits a headless CMS would offer. But as you said earlier, many companies still utilize outdated methods for content. What would be the biggest challenges for companies to start changing their content structure?

A very large challenge is fundamentally changing how people think about using content. There needs to be a shift to a content-first mindset as well as an awareness of how to structure content so it can easily be reused or quickly delivered to the right application. In short, organizations have to transition to modeling content in a pure, channel-agnostic way.

This may also involve changing product development process to enable digital teams to actively collaborate and become more agile compared to old-school, cascaded processes.

One good thing about legacy CMSs was that they made a lot of important architectural decisions on your behalf. As long as you agreed with those decisions, the process of launching a new project was relatively straightforward.

In contrast, headless CMSs require users themselves to make all these decisions: Customers have to decide how to structure their content, what the right type of architecture for their apps and websites is, and the right strategy for mirroring editorial workflows in their app. The real challenge is recognizing that brands need a new way of thinking — or, at the very least, trusted advisors to help answer these questions.

It’s safe to say that deciding to go headless doesn’t only positively impact the business or company making the switch. How would you say that the transition will benefit or improve the overall customer experience?

The main benefit of platforms like Contentful is that they allow forward-thinking organizations to transition from purchasing monolithic software to creating their own, using modern stacks driven by best-in-class microservices that support greater speed to market and flexibility.

From the content creation side, teams can iterate on their initial products until they can identify the winning combination of content pieces and then quickly roll it out across all their channels and touchpoints.

Those are the immediate benefits; what do you envision the future of content looking like?

What we are seeing is that users spend more and more of their online time outside of the traditional web. Websites used to be go-to destinations, but now content is just as likely to be discovered in a social feed, app, interactive screen, or even via Siri or Alexa.

Currently, each channel comes with its own backend content management component, fragmenting efforts to produce online content. We envision a future where publishing content across a wide range of operating systems, devices, and channels will be seamless and quick. A lot of innovations we will see in the next few years will be about integrating services like Contentful into a variety of architectures on the front end and stitching them together with other complementary services on the backend.

We’re in an era where it is critical to personalize content and experiences for the individual customer. Customers will be able to receive exactly the right messaging, through the right channel, at precisely the right time. A “one size fits all” approach is no longer how prospects convert to customers.

To lead on our last question and round this talk off, what are the biggest trends you believe will change how we view and think about content today?

Up until now, we were locked in the dichotomy where we often repeated to ourselves and our customers that we could either make content easy to edit but hard to use, or vice versa. With the rise of machine learning and the falling cost of computers, we might be entering an era where customers can start enjoying the best of both worlds: a content creation interface that feels like a free-form writing field to an author, but is exposed as a fully structured field for developers through the API.

In spite of initial difficulties, taking the time and effort to turn your content into new stories focused on the ideal context for users by using a detailed concept and framework, will lead to your business being flexible and sustainable in the long run. Contentful can help you structure your data effectively by assessing your existing content, then building a successful framework. We’ll help start you off by not only conducting prototypes, but also by teaching your content editors how to use CMSs, leaving you with an invaluable roadmap and toolbox to ensure you can successfully scale your business using content infrastructure.

Hello. We are Edenspiekermann, an independent, global design agency. We solve business problems with design.

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